On Tuesday 4 December, I’ll be taking part in the History Ireland Hedge School, From Ballots to Bullets at the NLI National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar with Brian Hanley and Liz Gillis.

You can book your free ticket here.  DtFrSYVWkAEC4M9.jpg-large

“We wouldn’t have a health or education system to begin with…”

Some hastily written thoughts on education from 2017… 

Last year a a newspaper published a column in favour of continued state support for church-run institutions, by a lecturer in religion in a teacher training college. The column was headline ‘Church and  casually asserts that ‘as for the contention that there should be no religious involvement in the operations of State services, we wouldn’t have a health service or an education system to begin with if this contention was State policy.’

This idea is rolled out with some regularity, often in debates in public houses, but is it true?

In terms of education the answer is mostly no, at least for the last two-hundred years. Looking back to the nineteenth century and later into the twentieth century, there were notable efforts to improve education provision in Ireland which, more often than not, were fought by the Catholic Church.

While teaching orders such as the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Charity did indeed run schools, most Irish people were educated by lay teachers. The primary education system today is based on the one set up under British rule in 1831. Established with the intention that schools be non-denominational and were prohibited from teaching religion, the various churches in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, worked to make sure that this system was inoperable. By the turn of the century almost all primary schools were run under the management of the local parish priest or rector, although staffed by lay teachers who were paid using state funds.

It should be borne in mind that the vast majority of teachers in Catholic schools during the 1800s were untrained and by 1900 barely 50 per cent of national teachers were trained. This was because there was a prohibition on employing teachers who had attended the non-denominational training college in Marlborough Street. In the eyes of the Catholic church, it was preferable to have untrained teachers rather than ones who had been trained in a secular environment. It was only when Catholic run teacher training colleges were established during the 1870s that children attending Catholic schools had the benefit of qualified teachers.

Similarly, the Catholic Church opposed the setting up of University Colleges Cork and Galway (now NUI Galway and University College Cork) along with Queens University Belfast because they were non-denominational. The Catholic Church wanted a Catholic university and Catholics were instructed not to attend these ‘Godless colleges’, lest they pick up any secularism there. Of course, more recently, the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid instructed Catholics in his diocese of the necessity for Catholics to be given a ‘fully Catholic education’ and forbade them from attending Trinity College Dublin, under pain of mortal sin.

Every bit of control which the Catholic Church secured over education was jealously guarded. For decades, the parish priests who managed schools could fire teachers with immediate effect for no reason. Efforts by the Irish National Teachers Organisation to get security of tenure for its members were highly controversial and resulted in the INTO being banned in half the Catholic schools in Ireland at the turn of the 1900s. Again and again, the teachers were accused of trying to push the Church out of education. Notably, all the Church provided here was control – the labour came from the lay teachers the money which paid their wages from the state.

This all pre-dated the creation of the Free State in 1922 and continued thereafter. Contrary to popular liberal opinion, a Catholic curtain did not descend on the south after partition, the existing situation merely ossified. The largely Catholic and very conservative Cumann na nGaedheal government had no interest in interfering with the role played by the Church in running schools and when it came to office, the Fianna Fáil government did likewise.

The state did have a problem, however. It was supposed to pay three-quarters of the costs of running the schools while local contributions would cover the rest. This was often short in economically deprived areas, which meant that in many working class areas of Dublin especially, the schools were cold and squalid. Health officers reported that the insanitary conditions broke health regulations and were likely to cause serious harm to children’s health, but asked again and again by successive governments to pay the money needed for the upkeep of schools, the Catholic church refused. When the INTO suggested that the solution would be for the government to pay the full amount, it was accused of trying to push the Church out of its natural sphere and introduce state socialism. Its attitude towards buildings showed a Church which wanted all of the power without any of the responsibility, and displayed a callous disregard for the welfare of the children and the people who taught them. The issue remained a problem well into the 1950s. The Church protected its role more zealously, in the context of the cold war but also watching the growth of the welfare state in the UK. After it had managed to dispense with the Mother and Child scheme, it continued to fight against full state funding of schools. As Cardinal D’Alton observed it ‘it has long been the considered view of the Bishops that if the building, maintenance, heating and cleaning of the schools were taken out of the hands of the managers, the ownership of the schools by the Church and the right of the managers to appoint and dismiss teachers would also soon be lost.’

For the last two-hundred years, in primary education especially, the state has provided the vast majority of funds and personnel for education. To suggest that we would not have an education system without the work of the Catholic Church is false. Rather, what the Church has tended to do was to demand control of a system but using state funds to run it, wielding power but without living up to its responsibilities.

The British Labour movement and the 1913 lockout.

Text of a talk at an event organised by Unite the Union in 2013.  

At noon on Monday, 1 September 1913, the 46th annual Trades Union Congress opened at the Milton Hall in Manchester. The first session began with messages of regret, as was customary but before the president could proceed further AE Chandler from the Railway Clerks demanded to know what Congress planned to do in connection with events in Dublin over the previous two days where, reports had it, four hundred people had been injured at the hands of the police and one man killed. It was, in the words of the Miners’ Robert Smillie, a massacre.

The trouble had begun in Dublin a couple of weeks earlier when on 15 August, William Martin Murphy issued an ultimatum to Irish Independent dispatch staff to leave the ITGWU or be sacked. Forty were let go and two days later, 200 tramwaymen were added to their number. The dispute escalated when the Dublin tramwaymen from the ITGWU left their trams on the morning of the Horse Show on 26 August and in the days that followed, officials of the Dublin Trades Council were arrested and there were violent scenes in the city. These reached their height with the infamous police baton charge on Sackville Street on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’

Certainly, the delegates at the TUC in Manchester were appalled by events across the water. Many of them had strong connections with Ireland but they were keen that their disgust at events was not viewed as a nationalist reaction: such violence by police during strikes was far too familiar. Almost exactly two years earlier in Liverpool, 350 people were hospitalized after an attack on a mass strike meeting by the police and troops, an attack referred to as Bloody Sunday, and two days later, troops shot and killed two workers in another incident. Events in Dublin had nothing to do with nationalism, they was an act of class war.

But if delegates were united in their condemnation of the police and the authorities, they differed among themselves in their attitude towards the dispute. The British movement was divided between cautious officials who instinctively supported the workers while opposing Larkin’s militancy and those who took a more syndicalist view similar to Larkin. The division was deep but unequal with caution predominating at the highest levels of the trade union leadership.

The less-than wholehearted support for the strike, or more accurately, the strike leaders was clear as James Sexton moved the original motion which condemned the banning of the meeting on Sunday and the ‘brutal manner in which the citizens of [Dublin] were treated.’ As Sexton acknowledged

It is well known, I think, to this congress, or to a good many members of the congress, that I have no reason to love some of the men who are imprisoned in connection with this question but this is a matter which rises above petty personalities altogether. It may be said that two blacks do not make one white; but the blackness of James Connolly, black as it may be – – I do not want to say a word against anyone of them, but I say that the blackness of JC and Larkin – if it be black – is white compared with the hellish blackness of men like Sir Edward Carson and some of his followers.

As Larkin’s old boss in the NUDL there was no love lost between the two but their clash was not merely personal. Sexton was inclined to be cautious as a trade union leader, Larkin less so. Ben Tillett of the London Dockers remarked that Sexton had been mild – he called for Larkin’s release from prison to be included in the motion too – while CB Stanton of the Miners’ Federation criticized the movement for becoming too cautious. ‘We have grown too smug, too respectable. There are too many of our people in the House of Commons, and too many JPs in our midst. There are too many afraid to dare and do.’

Congress voted to send a delegation to Dublin to inquire into events and their party of six men arrived in Dublin on Wednesday but their time in the city was not fruitful. In fact, quite the opposite. Relations were cool to begin with and downright frosty by the end. First of all, the Englishmen refused to address a public meeting when they arrived (in contrast with Keir Hardie who had come earlier). Then, as far as the Dublin men were concerned, a meeting with the Under-Secretary in Dublin Castle seemed to have left them with ‘a bad opinion’ of the Dublin leaders who came to the conclusion that their British brothers had set themselves up as arbitrators rather than supporters; at least one warned that they were trying to end the dispute behind Larkin’s back.

There was one very positive gesture, however, was the TUC’s pledge of £5,000 support for the strikers. At the suggestion of Bill O’Brien, this was given in kind since the sight of food ships docking on the Dublin quays would serve well as a symbol of resistance.

The problem was Larkin and the others did not want charity, they wanted solidarity. Larkin wanted a sympathetic strike and the British labour leaders had no intention of letting him have one; neither were they supportive of blacking goods to Ireland. Larkin, who had been arrested on Bloody Sunday, was released from Mountjoy on 12 September and immediately set off for England. He was there to raise money and support but while his ability to draw a crowd was clear, his lack of diplomacy was as bad as ever. He told a meeting at Manchester that the British trade union movement was ‘absolutely rotten’ and their leaders ‘damnable hypocrites,’ damning them collectively and then by name. Famously, he told them ‘I care for no man or men. I have got a divine mission, I believe, to make men and women discontented.’ If by some chance there was any doubt about where his sympathies lay in the British trade union movement, they were set straight when Larkin spoke at a series of rallies organized by the Daily Herald, the paper of the trade union rebels. Connolly for his part, called them ‘old fossils… willing to sell the pass at any time.’

Publicly, the British labour leaders held their tongues, but openly accused the Dublin unions as being ‘undisciplined and dangerous’ and that Larkin’s syndicalism was ‘poor fighting’ and ’15 years out of date.’

There was clearly support for Larkin and his tactics among the rank and file. Some 13,000 railwaymen in Liverpool, Birmingham, Crewe, Derby and Sheffield refused to carry goods destined for Dublin.[5] The Daily Herald reported that ‘the rank and file …say fight.’ NUR leader Jimmy Thomas was quick to put a stop to this. When, at the end of October, Larkin was found guilty of sedition in a case relating to events months before the Lockout, there was a swell of indignation and a protest rally at the Albert Hall, addressed by George Bernard Shaw and Sylvia Pankhurst, among others easily sold out. Ultimately pressure on the government to ensure Larkin’s release saw him let out of prison on 13 November. Soon after, he returned to England and began the campaign he dubbed ‘The Fiery Cross’ a series of huge meetings which began in Manchester where he spoke to a full house of 4,000 with five times that many outside. Workers flocked to hear him wherever he went: Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Preston, Stockport, Swansea. His appearance at the Albert Hall was a hot ticket among workers and aristocrats alike. The campaign and the importation of scabs saw another round of sympathetic strikes in Liverpool and Wales, this time involving some 30,000 workers.

Emmet O’Connor quotes a London official reporting

In all my experience I have never known a time when there has been manifested a desire to help any union in dispute as there is among dockers both in London and the provincial ports towards Dublin… We have had to rearrange the whole of our paid officials in London, placing them in certain centres with the express purpose of preventing any disorganized move.

Larkin’s continued appeals to the rank and file prompted the union leadership to take a stronger line against Larkin and by the time the TUC held a special congress to decide its tactics on the Lockout, it was clear that support among the leadership for sympathetic action was not there. Even those closest to Larkin like Ben Tillett were steadfast against the action. Congress voted to continue its financial support and lend its assistance in leading a settlement but clearly support had begun to ebb away. Strikers began to trickle back to work during December and by 18 January it was officially brought to an end.

Ultimately, the Lockout was disastrous for relations between the British and Irish labour movements but if the British labour movement was not prepared to endorse sympathetic action their support was worth a damn sight more than anything which came from Irish politicians who were either silent on the Lockout or vocally opposed to the strikers. If the Irish leaders saw he British union leadership as too cautious, this shouldn’t overshadow the class solidarity which was so clearly evident during the Lockout, especially by the rank and file. Between September 1913 and February 1914, a total of £150,000 was donated to the Lockout fund, of this two thirds came from British workers. At a time when Dublin trade unionists were callously abandoned by their fellow Irishmen and women, the support of British workers illustrated more than anything, who Irish labour’s friends were, and perhaps as importantly, precisely who they were not.


War, work and Irish labour

from Our War. Ireland and the Great War John Horne (ed.) (2009)

In 1914, when it seemed that a Home Rule parliament was merely months away, the Irish Trade Union Congress added the words ‘and Labour Party’ to its title.

The decision to establish a political wing had been made two years earlier, and but it was only in late July 1914 that it began to organize by appealing for funds to fight in the forthcoming election. The outbreak of war one week later put an end to Home Rule for the time being, and to Labour’s entrance onto the political stage.

Far from hindering Labour’s advance, however, the timing probably benefited the new party, since it is difficult to exaggerate the problems faced by the trade union movement at this point. Established in 1894, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was a talking shop dominated by elite craft unions with little or no political or industrial influence. New unionism, which saw unskilled and general workers organized in militant unions, such as the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) established in 1909, had grown in the years immediately prior to the war, but the Dublin lockout of 1913 had brutally and decisively ended its upsurge.

Economic impact of the war

The war brought considerable economic gains to Ireland, but these were concentrated in certain areas and sectors. The British war economy was geared towards munitions, supplies and food. Sectors that were well placed to provide for these needs would have a good war but in areas where this was not the case, the results were mixed. Naturally, in Ireland agriculture reaped immediate benefits, with the 1914 harvest receiving the highest prices since the 1880s. But without rationing or caps on food prices, consumers found themselves instantly at a loss. Only weeks into the war, the National Executive of the Irish Trades Union Congress issued a manifesto to the workers of Ireland entitled ‘Why should Ireland starve?’ that called for controls of the food supply and castigated Irish farmers as ‘profit-mongering crows’. ‘To the men of our class who are armed,’ it announced, ‘we say keep your arms and use them if necessary. If God created the fruits of the earth He created them for you and yours’. The militancy of the manifesto was not reflected in any action at the time, however, and this was merely the first of many unheeded calls from the executive on the problem of prices and food.

Apart from food supplies,  the main economic contribution to the war effort came from the shipyards of Belfast where Harland and Wolff not only built naval vessels but converted passenger liners into military ships. War work saw the numbers employed in Harland and Wolff increase to around 25,000 while smaller yards also benefited to the point where 37,000 were employed in shipbuilding in Belfast.3 Elsewhere in the north, the linen mills and shirt factories were flat out on military contracts. Between the industrial north-east and prospering farmers, the war ushered in an economic boom.

Yet the boom benefited only existing industries. From the summer of 1915, when the Ministry of Munitions was established, an effort to spur output resulted in national ordnance factories being established across Britain. Ireland, however, was largely overlooked. Home Rule MPs and local pressure groups called for Ireland to be given its ‘share’ manufacturing armaments but in the short term, only a few ‘minor contracts’ were secured.4 It has been suggested that this was because employers in Britain and in Ulster were determined to ‘freeze nationalist Ireland out of lucrative contracts’ to keep the south deindustrialized, but when it came to munitions, northern firms fared no better.

The truth is that there was no practical reason to situate munitions factories in Ireland and there were significant logistical and security reasons why it would be quite inadvisable. By the winter of 1917, only five National Factories had been established in Ireland in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Galway, employing 2,148 people. Most of these munitions workers were women since the government was determined that the creation of new jobs should not deter men from signing up. The contract signed by the Dublin Dockyard company, for instance, stipulated that not more than five percent of the total staff could be men or boys. In other factories, the proportion of men was greater, but women, doing the unskilled work, remained in the majority. It is hard to overestimate the comparative significance of the low level of munitions output in Ireland: what in many other wartime societies proved one of the most dynamic developments, affecting everything from gender relations (with the ubiquitous munitionnette) to the power and political clout of organized labour, was largely absent.


Yet Ireland did share in the wider phenomenon of economic uncertainty in the first few weeks of the war. In most cases, the fall in demand was temporary, but the drinks industry was hit more seriously. Excessive alcohol consumption was an issue which concerned most combatant states, and was a particular preoccupation of David Lloyd George who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1914-15. Believing that ‘munitions and materials are even more important than men,’ Lloyd George felt that excessive drinking was diminishing their quality and output and he highlighted in particular the mischief caused ‘in northern yards’ by ‘the drinking of raw, cheap spirits of a fiery quality’. On 29 April 1915 he announced to the Commons that he planned to introduce super-taxes on whiskey, beer and wine in an effort to curb demand. In 1912, the brewing and malting sector was the largest industrial contributor to gross domestic output in the twenty six counties, and distilling was also an important employer. In Dublin, Guinness had a workforce of around 3,500. In the event, the super-taxes were shelved in favour of the compulsory bonding of all spirits under three years of age under the Defence of the Realm Act. There followed legal efforts to curb consumption such as the reduction of opening hours in public houses and a ‘no treat order’ which prohibited buying rounds as well as further restrictions on output, which included the Output of Beer (Restriction) Act in the autumn of 1916 and at its most extreme, the complete closure of pot distilleries such as Powers in 1917.13 By 1918 Irish brewing output was half the level of 1916.

These actions led to large scale redundancies not only in the breweries and distilleries but also their suppliers. For instance, one round of restrictions introduced in 1917 resulted in 300 men being let go at the bottle works at Ringsend. Those lucky enough to remain employed were left in a profoundly insecure position, only one food order away from destitution or the front.

Recruiters were quick to exploit this insecurity. The Director of National Service in Ireland assured the thousands of men threatened with the loss of their jobs that he was ‘anxious to find employment for them’ but was ‘still unable to present any definite prospect of it’. Sir Bryan Mahon, Lieutenant-General Commanding in Chief of the Forces in Ireland stepped into the breach and in a public letter to the Irish Times declared that ‘their services will be gladly accepted in the ranks of any of our Irish regiments, or, if skilled workers, in […] technical corps.’ He also brought their attention to increased separation and dependents allowances ‘which together with their pay, food, clothing etc, will be found to compare favourably with the amount they would receive in civil employment.’

Of course, even without the additional push factors of the war, the economic impetus to enlist was very strong, not least since the conflict broke out only six months after the Dublin lockout had ended. The lockout had exacted a heavy toll on the ITGWU as an organization but even more so on its members. The union, under the direction of James Connolly, was vehemently opposed to the war and waged a vigorous campaign against its members joining up. It was difficult to compete with the inducements which the recruiting officers put before them, which included the promise of a steady army income, along with separation allowances for their families. Amidst the efforts to appeal to men’s patriotism in the enlistment campaign, the financial benefits for their families were prominent.

By the spring of 1915, some 2,500 members of the union, amounting to nearly half its membership at the time, had enlisted and one officer in the 16th Division noted that many of the men signing up were ‘real toughs […] Larkinites enticed to join the colours by the prospect of good food and pay, which was welcome to them after months of semi-starvation during the great strike of 1913 and 1914’. The over-representation of working class soldiers in the ranks was noted unfavourably by Irish recruiters. They feared the numbers of labourers enlisting was falling because the latter resented the failure of the farming and commercial classes to ‘share the burden of the war’ but that this was due to the dominance of the working class soldiers putting off middle class recruits.

‘We are satisfied that a much larger number of recruits could be obtained from the [farming and commercial classes] if it were not for their reluctance to enter upon their training with recruits from the labouring classes. This class prejudice is probably much more pronounced in Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.’

Industrial relations and the labour movement

Socialist and labour organizations across Europe had condemned the slide towards militarism in the years before the war. When the war actually broke out, however, deep divisions emerged. Those who continued to oppose the conflict were in the minority, while the majority rowed in behind their respective governments. In this, the parliamentary Labour Party in Britain was typical, with the British Trade Union Congress committing itself to industrial peace for the duration of the war.

The situation in Ireland, however, was quite different. There was a split on the war but it was based on nationalist rather than socialist lines and opponents of the war were very much in the majority in the labour movement. While unionist organized labour for the most part supported the war, nationalist trade unionists viewed the conflict as a British war against a British enemy; as James Connolly often pointed out in his speeches and journalism at this time, unlike Britain, Germany had never done Ireland any harm. As the banner on the front of the ITGWU headquarters in Liberty Hall put it: ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland’. The Irish Trade Union Congress was an all-Ireland body, and splits on political questions were avoided when possible, with the result that while Congress’s executive was clearly against the war, it was less strident than might be expected. The desire to avoid disagreement actually led to the 1915 annual congress being cancelled.

Nevertheless, while Congress wished to avoid internal discord over the war an industrial truce was out of the question given the importance of war-related issues, notably conscription and inflation. Although the government did not impose conscription on Ireland in 1916, the Irish unions identified economic conscription (meaning various controls on workers) as almost equally pernicious. When the Dublin Chamber of Commerce met in September 1914, their president, Richard K. Gamble impressed upon the businessmen the need for employers to encourage and facilitate the enlistment of their workforce by keeping their jobs open on their return from war and explaining to them that the uncertainty of trade during the conflict meant that they could not be assured that they could retain their jobs if they stayed. Many companies did so, and also offered considerable allowances to the families of men who joined up, although some employers took a more active approach by dismissing workers in an effort to compel enlistment.

The other issue which occupied the labour movement was workers’ welfare and specifically the problems caused by the continued rise in the cost of living. Congress campaigned against soaring food prices to little avail, but when the unions eventually moved on wages, they met with greater success. Before war broke out, organized labour had been, in David Fitzpatrick’s description, ‘abnormally docile in every sector of industry.’ Although the ITGWU was still struggling under the debts and low morale left by the lockout, circumstances began to swing in the workers’ favour in 1916 due to two factors.

First was a radical change in how industrial relations operated. Under the 1915 Munitions Act, strikes in war factories were banned outright while all other industries required three weeks notice and disputes were put to mandatory arbitration. Although the legislation frightened the unions at the beginning, its benefits soon became obvious. The act forced employers to the bargaining table where otherwise they might have resorted to a pre-emptive lockout or simply waited for the strike pay to run out, which inevitably it did. The Munitions Act meant that the number of strikes increased, but so too did the negotiations and settlements. Unsurprisingly, the act was fiercely resented by employers, who complained that bureaucrats were meddling in their businesses, while on balance the results for labour were positive. For the unions, nothing succeeded like success. Compulsory arbitration created an entirely new momentum in the movement and membership snowballed. For instance, when a strike by Irish railwaymen in November 1916 resulted in the national control of the Irish railways and the payment of a war bonus, membership of the National Union of Railwaymen shot up from 5,000 to 17,000.

The second key wartime development was the growing scarcity of manpower which, as in other belligerent states, reinforced the bargaining power of organized labour – even in the absence (in the Irish case) of a major munitions sector. The labour market tightened further with the introduction of conscription in Britain in 1916.  Membership of the ITGWU expanded from 5,000 in 1916 to 120,000 by 1920, while the numbers in craft and clerical unions also grew significantly, so that by 1920 Congress represented 225,000 workers compared with 100,000 in 1916.

Along with membership, militancy was also on the rise as workers threatened or engaged in strikes in the face of strong wartime inflation. In a single day in October 1916, for instance, the Irish Times reported a threatened strike by bakers and strikes by gasworkers, grave diggers and coal porters in Dublin, although a strike by railwaymen on the Great Southern and Western had just been resolved.28 Members and militancy in turn fed the proliferation of trade union organizations – a development that was particularly evident in the ITGWU once the Rising had been crushed and Connolly’s preoccupation with the politics of nationalist insurrection ended in his execution.

The combination of farming profits, labour shortages and state regulation also extended labour organization into the normally quiescent sector of the landless agricultural workers. The Corn Production Act to establish guaranteed prices for wheat and oats was introduced in January 1917 and finally became law in August. Its progress through parliament had been hindered by conservative farming interests who opposed its provisions for a minimum wage for agricultural labourers which would be looked after by an Agricultural Wages Board, as well as capping workers’ hours and rent, so that farmers could not recoup the higher wages by hiking up their workers’ accommodation costs.

Farm workers had were difficult to organise, but the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board provided the ITGWU with an opportunity to make a breakthrough. In spring 1917 it declared the organization of the agricultural workers to be a key objective, and by the autumn, new members flocked into the union. Even if some felt that the Wages Board rates were too low, market forces pushed up pay as the government made it compulsory to switch to tillage in order to increase the food supply, with the result that demand for farm labour became even tighter than before. The wages movement in agriculture only matured in 1919 but wartime conditions had provided the spur for effective organization of one of the largest and most exploited sectors of the Irish workforce. By 1920, 60,000 agricultural workers belonged to the ITGWU.

Women workers also benefited from the war, including those in historically under-organized industries, such as linen. In 1914 the Belfast-based Textile Operatives Society of Ireland and the Flax Roughers and Yard Spinners had a membership of 3,000 – about one tenth of its potential membership at the time – but by the end of the conflict, the two unions had a combined membership of some 20,000. The smaller new sectors were also represented, with women working in the munitions industry being represented by the London basedNational Federation of Women Workers which also represented women in the food processing industries as well as textiles. Another British based union, the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, which had recently (if reluctantly) expanded into garment factories, represented thousands of women workers in Ireland by the war’s end.

In contrast, the Irish Women Workers’ Union, the sister union of the ITGWU, failed to expand its organisation or membership to any significant degree. Like the Transport Union it had been hard hit by the lockout, but it was also ravaged by personality disputes and distracted by national issues, to the point where it failed to make a similar recovery.

Overall, the struggle to organize industrially and to raise wages was a success. Practically every section of the workforce secured wage increases, often through negotiation, even if these still trailed the cost of living. Workers also dealt with the problem of profiteering in food supplies by establishing cooperatives such as the ‘Workers’ Bakery’ formed by locked-out bakers in Tralee, which widened their sphere of activism and broadened their tactics. Indeed, this period saw a significant rise in local cohesion with the formation of trades councils in most towns across the country. Efforts to overcome the food crisis in effect broadened the awareness, diversified the activity and strengthened the solidarity of the labour movement.


The politics of labour and the anti-conscription campaign

The labour movement had been tangentially involved in the crisis of nationalist politics provoked by the Rising in 1916, most notably through the leadership of Connolly and the role of the Irish Citizen Army. Nineteen seventeen, the year of the failed socialist peace conference at Stockholm and of the two Russian revolutions, which culminated in Lenin taking Russia out of the war, affected the more radial Socialists. In early 1918, for example, the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), founded by Connolly long before the war and re-established after the first Russian Revolution in 1917, celebrated the November Revolution with a mass meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House at which around 10,000 people ‘hailed with delight the advent of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution’.38 The SPI proclaimed that the revolution had ‘fearlessly challenged the British people to loosen its grip upon Ireland.’ But in 1918 what loosened Britain’s grip was not radical socialism (a distinctly minority cause in Ireland) but a renewed crisis of nationalist politics.

Russia’s withdrawal from the war and the punitive peace imposed by the German military on the Bolsheviks the following March paved the way for the Kaiser’s last throw – the spring offensive in the west whose initial blow fell on British troops, including the 16th (Irish) and the Ulster (36th) Divisions, provoking the collapse of the Fifth Army. The political impact of this military crisis on Ireland was acute and instantaneous as the Cabinet decided that conscription must now be imposed on Ireland in a desperate search for more soldiers to stem the danger of a German victory. The British Labour members of the government warned against extending conscription to Ireland before Home Rule had been introduced, but the upshot was a compromise whereby Lloyd George tied conscription to the renewed promise of Home Rule.

In Ireland itself, conscription on any terms was unacceptable both to the Irish MPs and to nationalist opinion, so its eventual introduction without reference to Home Rule in April 1918 merely compounded the sense of anger in the country. The Irish Trade Union Congress was at the forefront of national resistance, joining with the Irish Parliamentary Party, the All-for-Ireland League and Sinn Féin in the anti-conscription conference in the Mansion House, while the Catholic hierarchy actively supported the campaign. In a clear echo of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1913, the Mansion House conference drew up ‘Ireland’s solemn League and covenant – a national pledge’ which vowed that conscription would be opposed ‘by the most effective means at our disposal.’

The united front was vitally important in this campaign, but Congress also worked alone, using both its political contacts and industrial strength to good effect. Relations between the British and Irish labour movements had deteriorated during the 1913 lockout after Jim Larkin had failed to convince the British unions to come out in sympathetic action for the Dublin workers, and were never effectively rebuilt afterwards. Now the channels of communication were opened once again over the issue of conscription. On 10 April, the day after the bill had been introduced in the Commons, Thomas Johnson and Cathal O’Shannon had travelled to London to meet members of the British Trades Union Congress executive to discuss the matter. This resulted in a statement of support from the British body, though it clearly had little effect on the passage of the bill and there was some resentment that only a handful of Labour MPs had voted against the measure. Efforts to engage Labour’s fraternal links did not end there, but the Irish unions decided a show of strength would prove more effective.

On 20 April 1,500 delegates at a special Labour convention backed a call to hold a general strike three days later on Tuesday 23 April. One of the first general strikes to take place in western Europe, the action was ‘most complete and thorough’ with only banks, the law courts and government offices operating that day.43 Because the issue was not industrial and because the politics were those of nationalism, not socialism, many employers backed their workers, although some threatened lockouts or even dismissal if employees participated. The success of the strike was remarkable, not least because it was organized so rapidly and effectively despite heavy press censorship. Workers protested at hundreds of meetings across the country, including 30,000 in Cork city, although fear of retaliation by the authorities inhibited gatherings in Dublin. The call to strike had been heeded almost universally with one vital exception. In the north east it was business as usual. Belfast and its surrounding counties were committed to the war effort and the cleavage on the issue that Congress had worked so hard to avoid opened up.

The united political and religious front, the signing of the anti-conscription pledge by hundreds of thousands, and the success of the general War, work and Irish labour strike made the depth of opposition quite clear. In a misguided effort to convince workers to abandon their stance, the pro-war Labour MP and general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, J. H. Thomas, came to the Mansion House in  Dublin to address members on the advisability of conscription – and met with a predictable response. When Irish Labour representatives travelled to London the following day, they fared a little better, convincing British Labour to issue an appeal against conscription in Ireland ‘on the grounds of principle and expediency alike’ and arguing that ‘the passage of the Conscription Act has done more to cement the National unity than any other act could have done.’ British Labour was unable to influence the government but its diagnosis was accurate. The strength of resistance made it impossible to impose conscription in Ireland, and while the Irish labour movement was only one component of the campaign, the strength conferred on it by the war economy endowed it with vital muscle for the nationalist cause. The relationship, moreover, proved reciprocal as the success of the strike further boosted ITGWU membership.

The period following the strike represented the zenith of trade union membership and confidence in Ireland, and when the annual congress of the ITUC met in Waterford that August, the atmosphere was electric. The strike seemed to have shown labour’s potential and as the chairman William O’Brien told delegates,

‘we shall not hurriedly neglect that lesson […] that a solid, united and determined working class acting as one man […] can bring to a standstill the whole industrial life of the country and all government.’

Bolstered by recent events, Congress decided to renew its political action, renamed itself the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, and mandated the National Executive to draft a new constitution. In early September, the executive decided to field candidates in the election that would follow the war. By the time the conflict had ended, however, and the country went to the polls for the first time in seven years, Labour had withdrawn from the contest rather than stand against Sinn Féin.

In conclusion, the Great War both transformed the situation of the Irish labour movement and delivered some harsh lessons on its margins of political manoeuvre in a society still divided more by nationalism than class. By comparison with Britain and other major industrial societies, the war had relatively little impact on the nature of the Irish economy. Crucially, there was no break-neck expansion in engineering, chemicals and metallurgy – the industries of the post-war future – and no industrial transformation of the relatively unindustrialized bulk of the country. Nevertheless, labour’s position at the end of the war was incomparably stronger than before the conflict. The rise in prices and the unequal benefits derived from the war-time economy encouraged workers to organize and take action, while legislation, particularly the Munitions Act and the Agricultural Wages Board, compelled employers to participate in the processes of industrial relations where workers’ demands had previously been ignored with impunity. This increased labour organization and revived militancy in a movement that had been shattered following the lockout.

Ireland was a semi-detached part of the United Kingdom, which made it a semi-detached society in the war. Although some 210,000 Irish men fought in the conflict, the war did not have anything like the same impact on Irish society as a whole as it did in Britain. Britain and Ireland differed not only in the extent to which the war changed society but also in the nature of that change. Although it ought not be exaggerated, the war had a something of a levelling impact on British society since four years of bloodletting created, as Jay Winter has noted, ‘a bond of bereavement which transcended distinctions of class or caste’.

This is not to suggest that the war ended class distinctions – far from it. The sacrifice of war opened the way for a new era of social reform and socialist reformism – the idea of establishing a ‘land fit for heroes’. This contributed to Labour’s displacement of the Liberals as the alternative force in British politics and to the achievement of a goal unthinkable only ten years earlier – the Labour-led government of 1923-1924.

There were no echoes of this in Ireland. The Home Rule parliament that might have provided a framework for it never materialized. Conscription was never enforced because by 1918 it represented for most nationalists the imposition of a blood-sacrifice not by the Irish nation but by a foreign state. Yet without it, enlistment patterns outside Ulster tended to divide along two lines: religion and class. In effect it was Protestants and working class men who joined the colours while middle class Catholics for the most part abstained. Rather than a ‘bond of bereavement’ being established in Ireland, the war actually widened the divisions between the classes.

The Irish experience of the Great War as a war fought by certain classes and not others was also reflected in the impact of the conflict on Irish workers at home. The war boosted the agricultural economy and provided large profits in certain industries, but it was working class families who bore the brunt of food shortages and increased prices as wages failed to keep pace with war time inflation. It was precisely this situation, and the action of workers to tackle it, that brought the Irish trade union movement back from the brink to its strongest position yet. However, in the unresolved crisis of Irish relations with Britain, this industrial power (and the distinctive ‘syndicalism’ to which it gave rise) could not readily be translated into an autonomous Labour politics, let alone radical Socialism. As war ended, the Congress party began to prepare once again to step onto the political stage, from an apparently far stronger position than in 1914.

This time it was organized, this time it was ready. But Labour was prevailed upon to stand aside by Sinn Féin. Had it not done so, who can say how it would have fared. But unlike the false start in 1914, this was a setback from which Labour would never recover.




Kindling the Flame

150 Years of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation

Final Cover 15 NovThis is a finely researched and readable account of multiple struggles over 150 years, in which themes of politics, class, gender and power are deftly interwoven through the story of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.

The INTO emerged in 1868 as teachers across Ireland united to fight for their rights. Men and women, Catholic and Protestant, they were all subject to poor pay, dire conditions and no job security, banned from speaking publicly about their grievances and ignored by the Board of National Education which oversaw them.


Against these obstacles, the INTO steadily grew in strength and influence to take on the Dublin-based education authorities which oversaw them, the London government which paid them and the priests who employed them.

Simultaneously, the organisation which was non-political (neither nationalist nor unionist) and non-sectarian negotiated the inevitable challenges thrown up in a country that was often split along national and religious lines.

After decades of fighting campaigns against the British administration for recognition and for decent conditions of employment, it had to fight them all over again against governments in Dublin and Belfast.

This is an important book that examines education, religion, politics, labour history and society on the island of Ireland from the Fenians to Brexit.


Puirséil, a professional historian and highly regarded author of the Irish Labour Party 1922-73, has written a book that is well researched, accessible and fluent…  This book does justice to the difficulties, achievements, mistakes and triumphs that have made the INTO a towering trade union and illuminates the implications of excessive religious control of primary schools as well as skilfully excavating the politics of education.

Diarmaid FerriterIrish Times 


The INTO was never merely a trade union, but a curious mix of professional association and educational lobby, and it is that hybrid nature which makes the  sesquicentennial history of Niamh Puirséil such an engaging read. It reminds us, too, what a central role teachers have played in Irish society as a whole…

Kindling the Flame: 150 years of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation tells the story of an incredible movement, an appreciation of which presents valuable insights into the history of Ireland more generally. Niamh Puirséil is to be commended on her achievement.

Daire KeoghThe Irish Catholic 

Kindling the Flame is available to order here.





‘The Schoolmasters’ Rebellion: Teachers, the INTO and 1916

‘The Schoolmasters’ Rebellion: Teachers, the INTO and 1916

Published in Saothar 41 (2016)

On Saturday 13 May 1916, the day after the last of the executions which followed the Rising, J.P. Mahaffy, the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, sat down to write a letter to the Times of London. Mahaffy, who had entertained Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at his college residence that day, was furious at John Dillon’s speech to the House of Commons the previous Thursday. Dillon had told the Commons that hundreds of people had been arrested and ‘shot without any form of trial’ and, pointing to events in Paris in 1848 and 1870, Mahaffy took issue with his remark that ‘no rebellion in modern history [had] been put down with such blood and savagery.

J.P. Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin
J.P. Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin

But having lambasted Dillon and, naturally the ‘Sinn Féiners’ themselves, Mahaffy turned his attention to those he regarded as responsible for the rebellion in the first place. ‘There has been throughout the national schools a propaganda of hatred to England on the part of the schoolmasters living on the salary of the Imperial government,’ he asserted, ‘The rising generation have been so carefully soaked in disloyal sentiments that the large majority of the population is now against Imperial law and order.’ At this point, the provost was prepared to offer only one practical suggestion, that anyone in receipt of a salary from the Crown, particularly teachers but especially national teachers, would be required to make periodic public declarations of loyalty in the presence of the whole school that they were loyal subjects and would avoid all teaching of disloyalty or rebellion in their classrooms.

So began the notion of the Easter Rising as ‘the schoolmasters’ rebellion’. The idea that the national teachers of Ireland had been preaching sedition from the blackboard was repeated in the Times Educational Supplement in June which stated ‘there is evidence that in many National Schools the teaching of late years has been distinctly anti-British. Stress has been laid on the ancient wrongs of Ireland [and] little has been said about England’s constructive work in recent times,’ and Mahaffy took to the Times once again at the end of June to reiterate his claims. ‘It can be proved to any man who will listen to the evidence of those who lived through the whole insurrection in Dublin that it was deliberately planned by the careful instilling of revolutionary principles in the teaching of many of our primary schools.’ Quite how Mahaffy had arrived at this conclusion was unclear. Having spent Easter week in TCD, where he had led the defence of the college, he had not had the opportunity to quiz the insurgents as to their motives, or the extent to which they had learned them in school but an outspoken unionist, Mahaffy was also staunchly anti-nationalist in culture and politics, and had been a vociferous opponent of the Irish language and the teaching of Irish history. This may have coloured his thinking, perhaps informed by the prominence of Patrick Pearse in the rebellion, but the idea that the national schools were hot-beds of sedition came as news to most people, not least the teachers themselves and the Board of National Education.

Until Mahaffy’s volley against their profession, the Rising’s most immediate impact on the INTO was that it had disrupted its annual congress which was beginning in Cork on Easter Tuesday. Many of those travelling to Cork had been unable to make it, with at least one principal from Dungannon having to hide out in a restaurant on Amiens Street for the week, after various misadventures on Sackville Street on Monday. Congress proceeded anyway, but those who had made it were characterised has having ‘an anxious preoccupied look, and it could easily be seen their hearts as well as their thoughts were far away,’ with ‘any news from Dublin?’ the predominant question of the day. Explaining its failure to publish recent issues, the Irish School Weekly referred to the ‘calamitous events of the past three weeks in Dublin’ which had prevented them from going to press, and hoped ‘that never again will events such as those which have practically paralysed all kinds of Dublin since Easter Monday last mast the tranquillity of the metropolis or the country.’ That, in effect, was all there was to be said about the matter, or at least it would have been, had Mahaffy not intervened.

George Ramsay, INTO President and President of the IPNTU.
George Ramsay, INTO President and President of the IPNTU.

His first letter, having appeared in a London newspaper, did not garner much attention but the repetition of the claims in the Times Education Supplement made it difficult to ignore and prompted the INTO president, George Ramsay, to write to the Freeman’s Journal to take issue with its ‘scurrilous references’ to teachers. Noting its remarks that ‘the Commissioners knew what was happening but were powerless to interfere with the centres of disloyalty’ Ramsay noted that it had, in the next breath, inferred that teachers dared ‘not be disloyal because they are ‘watched by inspectors and managers and disloyalty always involved the risk of loss of pension’.

Naturally, these accusations (and the Board’s alleged complicity) were considered by the Board of National Education. At its first meeting after the Rising, on 23 May, it decided to request a list of the national teachers who had been ‘implicated in the recent insurrection’ and proposed to consider the ‘entire question of the connection with the ‘Sinn Féin’ movement of persons either in the direct or indirect employment of the Commissioners’, and at the next meeting two weeks later, Mr. Justice (John) Ross, a Presbyterian and member of the privy council, called attention to ‘the desirability of taking steps to dissociate the teaching in the national schools from disloyal and seditious tendencies.’ There were, at this stage, no signs of disloyal or seditious tendencies from which to dissociate but, after some consideration and discussion, the Commissioners decided nonetheless to bring the heads of the teacher training colleges and representatives of the school managers to a meeting to consider ‘measures to prevent the spread of seditious tendencies amongst the national teachers.’ The INTO was not invited.

Catherine Mahon, past president INTO
Catherine Mahon, past president INTO

The Board also made inquiries among the inspectorate as to whether they had any evidence of seditious teaching or acts by the teachers. To no one’s great surprise, the inspectors came back virtually empty handed. They found no cases of seditious teaching but there were a handful of cases where teachers or trainee teachers, had shown themselves sympathetic to the rebels, most notably, a speech given by the former INTO president, Catherine Mahon, at a meeting to set up a branch of the National Aid association.

They also received reports from Dublin Castle informing them of incidents where named teachers, and in other cases pupils and trainee teachers, had been seen wearing ‘Sinn Féin badges.’ In these cases, the Board would contact the school manager (or the principal, in the case of students in the De La Salle training college), who would report back and almost always, the inquiry would result in an apology from the teacher, and the matter would go no further, with an instruction from the board that they abstain from anything of a similar character in future. Naturally, in addition to whatever investigations were made by the inspectors, the Board of Education also called upon the source of the claims, Mahaffy himself, to state on what evidence he [had] made certain statements in the public press as to the seditious teaching in the national schools, but Mahaffy did not deign to respond. On 21 July 1916, the Board issued a statement to the press summing up the results of its inquiries, namely that

two or three instances of disloyal teaching [had] been brought under notice and these charges are being investigated, but no evidence has been adduced which would warrant the conclusion that seditious teaching in the national schools exists to any appreciable extent.

In a teaching body of 5,700 men, the Commissioners noted (overlooking the seditious potential of the women teachers), only ten had been imprisoned, which hardly supported a charge of general disloyalty.

Thomas Ashe

Overall, though, the Board was very cautious in taking action, even among the teachers who were directly involved. At it’s meeting of 26 September, it withdrew recognition from the two teachers who had been sentenced to penal servitude for their part in the rising, Thomas Ashe, principal of Corduff NS, and a member of the Dublin Central Association of the INTO, and Finian Lynch, of St Michan’s BNS. Ashe, who had led a battalion of Volunteers in North County Dublin, had led what was probably the most militarily successful sortie of Easter Week, while Lynch had been based around North King Street. Teachers who had been interned but since released (about ten men) ‘and in respect of whom report had been received from Dublin Castle’ would be allowed to resume and the managers of the remaining teachers who were arrested and had not yet been released were told they could not resume teaching without the Commissioners’ sanction. Those teachers who had not been interned but who were reported to be members of the Volunteers were to be told to resign all connection with the organisation. In all, six teachers, four as well as Ashe and Lynch, had their recognition withdrawn. Of these four, one, Michael Thornton (Mícheál Ó Droighnáin), appealed the decision, initially with the support of his local INTO branch, and much later the CEC, and was eventually reinstated as principal of Furbough National School in 1920. In addition to keeping an eye on the teachers, the Board also reviewed the books being used in schools, in particular the history books, and withdrew a couple of Irish history readers which could possibly be deemed problematic. Finally, they sanctioned the distribution of a pamphlet written by May C. Starkie, the wife of WJM Starkie, the Resident Commissioner of Education, entitled ‘What is patriotism: the teaching of patriotism’, described by the Bishop of Limerick as a recruiting manifesto from ‘an educational Mrs Proudie’.

Apart from the early response by George Ramsay to Mahaffy’s accusations and the piece in the Times Education Supplement, the INTO, as a whole had nothing to say on the matter of 1916. This might well have been expected. The Rules of National Schools, under which teachers were employed, placed them, individually and collectively, outside the bounds of political life. They were ordered ‘to avoid fairs markets and meetings – but above all, political meetings of every kind; [and] to abstain from controversy…’ while an additional rule reiterated that ‘the attendance of teachers at public meetings or meetings held for political purposes, or their taking part in elections except by voting, [was] incompatible with the performance of their duties and a violation of rule which will render them liable to withdrawal of salary.’ National teachers had long resented the curbs on their civic lives and had been campaigning for ‘full civil rights’ for several years, with the Board of National Education opposing any loosening of the rule. But while the INTO was prohibited from comment on politics by the Commissioners, it was, perhaps more pertinently, prohibited from so doing by its own rules. Established in 1868 as an organisation representing all the national school teachers of Ireland regardless of religion, the second rule of the organisation was designed to ensure the unity of national teachers was not threatened by sectionalism, declaring that ‘no political or sectarian topics shall be introduced at meetings of the National Teachers’ Association, and any Association which permits the discussion of sectarian or political topics shall be obliged to sever its connection with the general organisation.’ There had been periodic tensions over questions of politics and religion (the two were almost inevitably intertwined), and on one occasion, a failure to drink a loyal toast to the Lord Lieutenant at the Congress of 1883 ultimately led to a short-lived breakaway Northern Teachers Union which returned to the fold in 1889, to relief all round. Ten years later, a ginger group was established calling itself the Protestant National Teachers Union (PNTU), its purpose to represent teachers working in schools under protestant management within the INTO, their primary purpose to secure for protestant teachers similar rights of tenure that had been conceded to Catholic teachers during the 1890s. Notably, though, the PNTU existed so that they would not be taken for granted, with one reason for joining the IPNTU being ‘because if at any future time the INTO should adopt any principles or methods repugnant to Protestant sentiment, we would have in union an organisation to fall back upon, and could, without disadvantage, sever our connection. Further, the knowledge that we could do so might be the most powerful preventative against the adoption of wrong lines by the INTO.’

The INTO may not have adopted any ‘wrong lines’ over the rising having adopted no line at all, but a deep difference of opinion soon became apparent nonetheless when the IPNTU met for its annual conference in Belfast on 24 June. Presided over by George Ramsay who was president of the IPNTU as well as the INTO, delegates unanimously adopted a motion which declared their ‘whole-hearted and unaltered loyalty and devotion to our King and Empire, and our indignant condemnation of a section of our countrymen in trying to raise a rebellion in Ireland at the dictation of, and with the assistance of Germany,’while more practically the PNTU established a subcommittee ‘to watch protestant teachers’ interests in the so-called Irish question’. It’s worth bearing in mind that only days after that conference, the big push began at the Somme on 1 July and by 2 July the death toll among the officers and men among the 36th Ulster Division was some 5,500, a factor which would only reinforce the antipathy towards the rebels from the (largely Ulster based) protestant INTO members. The Belfast branch of the INTO also ‘[disclaimed] all sympathy with disloyalty to the Crown’ but it was unusual in this. For the most part, comment from local associations, where there was any, was more inclined to condemn Mahaffy’s statement as libellous and grossly insulting but also to vehemently oppose any effort to introduce pledges of loyalty for teachers.

Irish School Weekly, 6 October 1917
Irish School Weekly, 6 October 1917

In the end, the Commissioners having declared Mahaffy’s accusations to be hollow as early as July, there was little further action taken at a general level. As such, the 1916 Rising had no real immediate impact on the professional lives of teachers or their organisation and the INTO did not involve itself but the transformation of the political context over the next two years, in part as a result of the Rising (but also due to the on-going war in Europe) challenged the commitment among INTO members to eschew politics in order to preserve teacher unity. Ostensibly, the INTO remained detached from politics most obviously on the occasion when Thomas Ashe died from force feeding while on hunger strike in September 1917. This was a landmark event in the country at the time, with his funeral described as ‘even more impressive than the funeral of Parnell,’ the School Weekly published only a small headshot in its ‘Mainly Personal’ section, noting only that he had ‘died under such tragic circumstances,’ and was ‘sincerely mourned by all who knew him’.The following month saw the IPNTU pass a motion which ‘[deprecated] the actions of the Central Committee of the INTO in passing a resolution of sympathy with political offenders’ (presumably Ashe), a motion which, significantly, did not appear in the published minutes of the CEC around that time. The change in the political context after 1916 inevitably impacted on the organisation and when, in September 1917, a majority voted that the INTO should affiliate to the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, a body regarded by this time as separatist socialist organisation, the die was cast while the INTO’s subsequent participation in the ITUCLP led anti-conscription campaign in 1918, was the last straw making it ‘impossible for many northern teachers to remain a constituent part of the INTO’, and leading to the formation of the Ulster Teachers Union (UTU) in 1919, the first group to secede from the INTO which never rejoined. After partition, the INTO continued to represent teachers in schools under Catholic management in Northern Ireland as well as a significant section of Protestant teachers in county schools who remained with the organisation. It was the INTO’s affiliation with the ‘Bolshevik’ Congress and Labour Party that hastened the departure of some of its more conservative Protestant members but while the 1916 Rising may not in itself have caused the partition of the INTO, but it was, arguably a catalyst nonetheless.



Niamh Puirséil

Dr Niamh Puirseil is a historian and critic. Specialising in modern Irish political, social and educational history, she has written widely on Irish politics, society and the labour movement. She is best-known for The Irish Labour Party 1922-73, the standard history of that party and the best-selling Landmark documents in Irish History.

She has very recently published Kindling the Flame. 150 years of the Irish National Teachers Organisation which was published in 2017. It charts the development of one of the oldest Ireland’s oldest and most influential unions, as well as offering an in-depth look at education and society and the influence of church and state on the island of Ireland form the era of the Fenians to Brexit. (You can read a review of it here and buy it here)

She has contributed to titles including Jacobin, The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post, History Ireland, the Irish Literary Review and Village Magazine as well as history and current affairs programmes on television and radio.

A graduate of History and Politics in University College Dublin, she was completed doctoral studies there in 2002. Previously a lecturer in University College Dublin, she was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Irish History in Trinity College Dublin. She held a graduate scholarship by University College Dublin on the basis of her final results in the BA and was awarded a Government of Ireland doctoral scholarship by the IRCHSS.

As well as many conference and seminar presentations, Niamh has been an invited speaker at the Parnell Summer School, the annual Douglas Hyde Conference, the Tom Johnson Summer School and the Byrne-Perry Summer School as well as at events organised by History Ireland, the Irish Historical Society, the National Library of Ireland Society and many others.

Adept at many things, she finds writing in the third person and making websites challenging.

She lives in Dublin.

Contact: niamh.puirseil at

On The Irish Labour Party

During the 1950s, Jack White, the deputy editor of the Irish Times was asked by a foreign colleague to explain the irrelevance of the left-right cleavage in Irish politics. ‘Draw a line, and put all the parties well to the right,’ he explained. ‘But what about the Labour Party?’ his companion inquired, to which White replied, ‘Put that furthest of all’.

White was joking but only just and if Labour was regarded as conservative at home it was it was even more so when compared with her sister parties. One historian described it ‘as the most opportunistically conservative party in the known world.’ It was not until the late 1960s that the party professed an adherence to socialism, a word which had been completely taboo until that point. But why had Labour developed such a reputation for conservatism and, indeed, how accurate was this belief?

The Irish Labour Party 1922-73, the first comprehensive history of the party, examines its fortunes during the first five decades of the new state. Using a wealth of new material and building on existing scholarship in history and political science, it traces how Labour endeavoured to establish a place for itself in the context of a conservative society dominated by civil war politics and in which the profoundly anti-socialist Catholic Church exerted very significant influence.

The book, which examines Labour in opposition and during two periods of coalition government, is more than a history of a political party and its relationship with voters, other parties (within and outside of the state) and interest groups but also shines a light on attitudes and values in Irish society, and marks a major contribution to our understanding, not simply of the Labour Party, but of twentieth-century Ireland itself.

You can buy it in paperback here or in hardback here.

Launching the book at the Royal Irish Academy, Professor Brian Farrell said:

‘Niamh Puirseil has put us all in her debt. She has had the courage to tackle a central issue inthe development of Irish politics and in the process spread much light on many other aspects of Irish life in the twentieth century…

Her thorough use and command of newer material as well as her careful cross-referencing to earlier work, her analytic capacity to shape it into a clear, comprehensive and critical narrative, and perhaps above all, her sharp eye for the telling detail combine to announce the arrival of an important and exciting new name in modern Irish historiography.

Her fluent and easy style reveals a young scholar determined to bridge the gap between academic accuracy and readiness of access for the general reader.  The pointed phrases flash through the text and lodge in the mind as bright, and immediately recognizable, definitive judgments’

With Brian Farrell and Michael Gallagher at the launch of The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73

Some reviews 

I would urge the leader of the Labour Party … to present every Labour TD with a copy of this book. And I would urge them to read it.”
John Horgan, Irish Times May 2007

“This is a well written and deeply researched book, and a sobering slap in the face to those who wonder why the Left in Ireland struggles to assert itself.”
The Sunday Business Post June 2007

“The book is an outstanding piece of research – sober in judgement, rich in detail, and beautifully written.”
T. Ryle Dwyer, Irish Examiner July 2007

Niamh Puirseil’s recently published history of the Labour Party’s first 50 years is a warmly welcomed addition to what remains a barren field. Published by UCD Press [it] fills an important vacuum in our knowledge of the party and the more general political context … [it] deserves to be widely read, by supporters and critics of the party alike.”
Eoin O Broin, Magill August/Sept 2007

“Niamh Puirseil has produced an invaluable reference work for anyone interested in her subject. It brims with facts presented in an easy style spiced with a pleasant ironic humour.”
D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, History Ireland Sept/Oct 2007

This is a balanced and fascinating appraisal of the Labour Party, written with wry humour and an eye for the telling detail … The book is particularly strong on Labour’s time in government and, as one would expect, the party is treated primarily as an electoral organisation rather than a social movement … Puirseil has engaged with the secondary sources, scoured the archives and conducted interviews with several leading figures, and the depth of research is apparent throughout. It is a confident, authoritative and measured study that will be the starting point for all future research on the Irish Labour Party.”
Fintan Lane, Irish Historical Studies vol. XXXVI No. 141 May 2008

Niamh Puirseil’s study of the Labour Party fills an important gap in both the history of political parties and labour history. … [her] study is based on a wide range of new sources and intelligent use of existing archives. She is to be commended for her mature judgement on many of the key issues that faced the Labour Party and Irish party system during this time’

Brian Girvin, English Historical Review CXXIV 506 February 2009

“This is a thought-provoking study peppered with many original observations. A high quality of research is maintained throughout the book, with Puirseil’s wide archival and newspaper trawl and an excellent employment of the (still underused) Dail debates reaping dividends in the production of this lively account of the Labour Party’s history … has now raised the bar for such future works…”
Irish Political Studies January 2008

More reviews here

The Irish Labour Party 1922-73 was also chosen by Pat Rabbitte as one of his books of 2007 on the Today with Pat Kenny show.

As seen on tv…